It began for me in 1977 with this wrap-around cover illustration. I knew there were a lot of this guy’s books on the shelves of the college bookstore along with works by Robert E. Howard, Roger Zelazney, and Theodore Sturgeon. And I knew this guy had also written paperback books under the name “Andrew North”, a name I had seen on the twenty-five cent novels in the drugstore where you could buy the really good pulp fiction novels only slightly used.
I had never before bought one of his books. And the book money I had for the fall quarter at Iowa State was supposed to all go towards the book-list given to me as a Junior-level English major. But the naked kid on the cover had a wired-up collar around his neck. And I had only recently recovered long-suppressed memories of being a victim of a sexual assault. I had to have it. I had to know what that illustration had to do with the story inside.
So, I bought a book that I judged by its cover.
And it was not the wrong thing to do.
The main character was a boy named Jony, the naked boy on the cover of the book. He is taken by alien beings as a study specimen along with his mother, the pregnant woman on the back of the wrap-around illustration. The story starts with Jony in a cage, treated like an animal. His mother, also a study specimen has been mated to a Neanderthal-like humanoid specimen who cannot speak, and she has given birth to twins, a boy, and a girl. They are kept in separate cages by their inhuman captors.
Jony manages a mass escape, taking his mother and his younger siblings with him, and releasing as many of the other study specimens as he can. Luckily they escape onto a very earth-like planet. But unluckily, the mother is in very poor health and dies soon after escaping. Jony is then responsible for his little brother and sister in a wilderness that is not empty of others. Luckily, the others they first run afoul of are the bear-like ursine aliens who share their need to not be recaptured by the zoo-keeper aliens.
It was a perfect novel for me. I identified strongly with the main character, who had been violated in a very personal way by monsters. And then had to build a new life in a world full of potential other-monsters. Andre Norton shared my pain and helped me overcome it.
But she also fooled me big-time. She was not a he.
She was a librarian and editor of pulp fiction who wrote enough sci-fi and fantasy in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s to finally become a full-time author.
She was already on book number 29 when she retired from being a librarian to write full time.
And I would go on to own and read several of her other books, which were good, but never quite lived up to that first one I read. Of course, that may have been because of the timing and circumstance that led me to a book that I actually needed to read. That book set me on the road to recovery from my personal darkness. And it may have sparked in me the need to eventually become a nudist. And more important than that, it may have led me to a lifelong need to teach reading.
Andre Norton was a real writer. And she made me one too. Though I never knew who she really was until after I bought that book because of the picture on the cover. And I never got around to properly thanking her for all of that… Until this very moment.